The massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were shot dead by an 18-year-old gunman with an AR-15-style rifle, has once again drawn America’s attention to the number of children killed by gunfire.
Medical journals and news reports have stated that guns now kill more of America’s youth than do motor vehicles. President Joe Biden repeated that claim during his speech Thursday night. But a closer look at the data shows that while gun deaths are close in number to vehicular deaths, much depends on how the numbers are sliced.
While gun and motor vehicle deaths increased substantially in 2020, the latest year for which final numbers were available, claims that more children and teenagers die due to guns than motor vehicles only hold up when 18- to 19-year-olds are included, a group that accounts for nearly as many gun deaths as 1- to 17-year-olds combined do, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The gap between vehicular deaths and firearm deaths is narrowing among 1- to 17-year-olds, and may close entirely, according to the CDC’s provisional and incomplete 2021 data.
More than 20 news reports, including reports from NBC News, cited an analysis showing that more children and adolescents suffered gun deaths than motor vehicle deaths in 2020. This analysis appeared in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine and in a report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions in April.
“The data speaks for itself,” said Jason Goldstick, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the co-signers of the letter in the New England Journal.
When asked for the source of the president’s claim, a White House spokesperson replied with a link to a Scientific American article about gun deaths among 1- to 24-year-olds.
Certain media reports, the president and other politicians skip mentioning teenagers or adolescents altogether and cast the gun deaths surpassing car deaths as an issue solely affecting children. While firearm deaths among children age 1 to 17 increased 29 percent from 2019 to 2020, motor vehicle deaths increased 10 percent and remained the leading cause of death in that age group. Provisional data from 2021 shows a gap of nine deaths separating vehicle fatalities from firearm deaths among children.
Experts attribute the increase in firearm deaths from 2019 to 2020, an increase experienced across most ages, to many factors, including the pandemic and an increase in gun sales.
“The stressors that we all face during Covid are also stressors that can fuel interpersonal violence, domestic violence and gun violence out in the community,” said Ari Davis, a policy adviser at the Johns Hopkins center and the lead author of its annual report on gun deaths in the U.S.
Gun homicides reached a historic high in 2020, but these killings were not evenly distributed. According to Davis, firearm homicides increased the most among Black women.
Among the solutions to gun violence that the Johns Hopkins center supports are safe-storage laws and an increase in gun licensing in states.
The report shows that the rate of gun deaths is highest in the South and in the states of Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Suicides accounted for more than half of the 45,000-plus firearm deaths reported in 2020, a larger share of gun deaths than the 19,000 homicides counted that year. Among children and teenagers, homicides account for more deaths than suicides.